Birds are in Harry’s blood – his father bred canaries, and Harry has been racing his own pigeons for twenty eight years.
I met Harry and his racing team when I visited his home last week, to give his bird their vaccinations against Paramyxovirus, a pre-race requirement for all pigeons. Harry is a member of the Bray Invitation Racing Pigeon club, and he has over fifty birds at the moment. He generally buys his birds from other club members, spending from €40 to €100 on each one, but racing pigeon enthusiasts can spend a lot more on top rated individual birds. There are stories of people spending €20000 or more for one pigeon. The birds can race for up to six years, and after that, Harry keeps his ex-racers in comfortable retirement in his loft. His oldest bird at the moment is a ten year old female.
Pigeon racing is a popular hobby in Ireland, but the logistics of the sport are not well known to those outside racing pigeon circles. It is a well organised, tightly regulated activity, based on the remarkable ability of pigeons to navigate back to their own loft when released many miles from home.
Most of the race release locations, or “race points”, are in Ireland, in places such as Mallow, Roscarbury or Tramore. There are some international races, with the UK being the most popular overseas location. There is one big race each year known as the Kings Cup, when birds are released from continental Europe. This year, the birds will be released from Lamballe, in northern France. The long distance races present a huge challenge to the birds’ homing instincts, and a proportion of the birds go missing during these races. The ring identification system means that it is possible to track the final location of missing birds, even if they never manage to return home. One of Harry’s birds once ended up in Morocco.
Harry’s local pigeon club is involved with around twenty eight races every year. There is a set routine for the races that starts with the birds being taken down to the local club on the evening before a race, typically on a Friday. Special rubber rings are applied to the pigeons’ legs, under the watchful eye of club officials. The numbers on the rings are unique to each race, and form the basis of generating an individual race time for each bird..
The labelled pigeons are then taken as a group into Dublin, in wooden crates called “panniers”. The Bray Club is part of the Irish South Road Pigeon Federation, one of a number of clubs involved in organising pigeon racing programmes in Ireland. Pigeons are brought in panniers from a number of local clubs around Ireland, and are then all transferred into a forty foot trailer designed specifically for transporting pigeons. There could be two or three thousand birds in a typical race.
The birds are then driven to the racepoint. They are kept in their panniers, but fed and watered as needed. The pigeon enthusiasts are charged a fee for each crate of racing birds, which is generally no more than a few euro per bird. Harry sends around ten birds to each race, but some of his club mates may send sixty pigeons or more.
The birds are released on the following day, usually a Saturday, although if the weather is bad, this may be delayed until the Sunday, or even the Monday. There is no point in releasing racing birds into rain and high winds. The pigeon owners are given a telephone number to ring – the so-called “Lib-Line”, which has an answer machine giving them information as to precisely when the birds were released. The information is also available online.
Harry knows how fast his birds can fly, and when he knows what time they were released, he can easily guess their expected time of arrival into his back garden. He generally sits having a cup of tea, looking out at his garden, and waiting for the flutter of wings that heralds the return of a racing bird.
When the pigeon arrives, he removes the rubber ring from its leg, and puts it into the special racing clock that he keeps in his own home. This records the time of arrival, and he then takes it up to the local club to be officially read.
The speed of the birds varies considerably, mostly depending on prevailing weather conditions. Typically, a bird might fly at thirty miles per hour, but the wind is favourable, a bird could travel at up to 60mph. The speed – or velocity – of the bird is the statistic that is used to calculate the winners in a race. This allows for the fact that each pigeon loft is a different distance away from the race point
There is a financial prize for the fastest bird in each race, but the amount is generally only a few hundred euro. In the bigger, open races, the prize money can be as high as several thousand euro. For local pigeon fanciers, interest in the results is boosted by an in-house pools system. Everyone puts a few euro into the pot, and the total is divvied out according to whose birds do best within the local club.
Harry’s young birds, born in 2007, had their first race last weekend. Their results were not startling, but Harry was happy enough. As in many hobbies, it is the sport that counts.
- Pigeon racing is a popular hobby
- Birds can be released from as far away as France
- Most birds fly home faster than humans can travel over the same distance